Food Insecurity in Western Los Angeles County
Food and water are two of the most basic needs to sustain human life. While food insecurity is an issue often associated with international development and aid, it affects people throughout the U.S. and Los Angeles County. Households who report low quality, variety, or desirability of diet are considered to have low food security, while households who report disrupted eating patterns and reduced food consumption are considered to have very low food security. On top of malnutrition and hunger, food insecurity has been associated with obesity, chronic diseases, stress, depression, and overall degraded physical and mental health, as food insecure households must often resort to buying less expensive foods that are high in calories but low in nutritional value.
Western Los Angeles County
The Westside Food Bank (WSFB) works in the Western part of Los Angeles County, an area typically considered immune to the consequences of food insecurity. The median income in the area is over $80,000 and 28% of the general population has limited access to groceries (meaning they don’t live within a ½ mile of a supermarket) – 10% lower than the county average. However, the WSFB service area is home to more than 940,000 people, and not all residents have equal access to healthy, affordable food. As of 2017 data, twenty percent of households make under $30,000 per year, and due to the high cost of housing in the area, such families can have little money to spend on food after paying their rent or mortgage. The demand for food assistance at Westside food pantries has risen by over 85% since 2008, and has remained at record-high levels as low-income households in the area continue to struggle to meet their basic needs.
WSFB serves a large area in the Western part of Los Angeles County spanning from the Unincorporated Santa Monica Mountains to the west, West Hollywood to the east, to Hawthorne and El Segundo to the south (as shown on the map below). Hover over a census tract to see the number of low-income individuals who do not live within ½ a mile of a grocery store.
In 2015, 48,800 low-income residents had limited access to groceries in the WSFB service area. The challenge in measuring poverty, rising rents, and the unique situation of veterans and college students helps to explain the growing food insecurity in this region.
The Difficulty of Measuring Poverty
The Federal Poverty Threshold, an income level that determines whether or not a person is in poverty, was established by the federal government to measure the number of people in poverty. First developed in 1963, the threshold measures what it would have cost to afford a subsistence diet – one that just keeps you from starvation and/or severe malnutrition - in addition to clothing, shelter and utilities. The threshold is updated annually to reflect the cost of inflation, but has otherwise remained unchanged since it was first calculated in 1963, despite the changing needs and budgets of families over the past 50 years.
A similar measure is used to determine eligibility for federal programs to alleviate poverty like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP (called CalFresh in California) is a government program that offers nutrition assistance to eligible low-income individuals and families. Households having a gross income that falls below 130% of the poverty threshold (about $32,600 for a family of four) are eligible for SNAP.
As of 2017, fewer families in the WSFB service area were earning below 130% of the federal poverty threshold than the Los Angeles County average. However, because West Los Angeles is one of the most expensive places to live in one of the highest cost states in the nation, the poverty threshold can be a poor measure of actual need and can exclude families from much-needed federal aid.
The chart to the right shows the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the U.S., California, Los Angeles County, and the WSFB service area.
In 2017, a family of four with an income less than about $31,600 ($2,630 per month) could qualify for SNAP. For families in the WSFB service area, renting a 2-bedroom apartment costs an average of $2,041 according to 2017 ACS 5-year estimates. This means that Westside families who qualify for SNAP have less than $600 left over a month to pay for all other expenses after paying the average rent in the area. Put another way, if families living in this area have more than $600 to spend on non-housing costs, they will not qualify for federal food assistance programs.
Populations in Need
In addition to high cost of living and the difficulties in measuring poverty and need, the WSFB service area has a large concentration of college students and veterans, two populations that are particularly susceptible to food insecurity.
The Veterans Administration is located in West Los Angeles, and veterans disproportionate need for food assistance helps to explain the growing demand in the WSFB service area. A recent survey of veterans showed that 27% reported experiencing food insecurity, compared to 15% of the general population. In the area around the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center, over half of residents are low income with limited grocery store access, and nearly 80% of renters pay more than 30% of their incomes on rent. This tract also has the highest concentration of people experiencing homelessness of any other tract in the WSFB service area, representing nearly 6% of the homeless population in the area.
The unexpectedly high demand for food assistance in the service area may also be explained by low-income college students. The WSFB service area includes the UCLA campus and surrounding student housing, where more than 35% of undergraduates receive Pell Grants, indicating they are from low-income families. Santa Monica Community College and West LA Community College are also in the service area, and according to the California Youth Homelessness Project, half of all California Community College (CCC) students are low income. Recent studies have found that 42% of UC students and 73% of CCC students in Los Angeles struggle with food insecurity.
“Often times it feels like I have to decide to pay for bills or groceries or books. I do not rely solely on financial aid for my school expenses and often times I end up having to pay out of pocket. But I also do not have the funds to support myself and pay for school at the same time without living on the streets. I do not want to choose between buying a $150 book or eating for a week.”
Westside Food Bank
Westside Food Bank (WSBF) provides a wide variety of nutritious foods to the food assistance programs of over 70 agencies located in Western Los Angeles County. In addition to distributing the food provided by WSFB, many of their partner agencies also provide services like employment assistance, housing placement, mental health counseling, and parenting classes to help lift people out of poverty.
WSFB places a strong emphasis on providing fresh produce, high protein foods and nutritious staples while limiting distribution of high sugar and high salt foods. The vast majority of WSFB food is distributed through food pantries to meet the food security needs of individuals and families in its service area. WSFB also provides food to many special populations in need including people experiencing homelessness at shelters and transitional living sites, children at afterschool and preschool programs, veterans at the West LA VA campus, and college students through pantry programs at UCLA, West Los Angeles College, Mount Saint Mary’s University and Santa Monica College.
The demand for services of WSFB and its partner agencies shows that even in the most affluent areas in the U.S., some families are struggling to put food on the table. As gentrification and rising cost of living continue to put pressure on individuals and families living in Western Los Angeles County, organizations like WSFB will continue to play an important role in combating the effects of poverty, homelessness, and lack of access to clean and healthy food.
California Homeless Youth Project and Schoolhouse Connection. (2018). Supporting California’s Homeless & Low-Income College Students: A Practical Guide. Link.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (2018). A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits. Link.
Feeding America. (2018). Map the Meal Gap: Highlights of Findings for Overall and Child Food Insecurity. Link.
The Institute for College Access & Success. (2016). On the Verge: Costs and Tradeoffs Facing Community College Students. Link.
Los Angeles Community College District, & Wisconsin HOPE Lab. (2016). Los Angeles Community College District: District Report from Fall 2016 Survey of Student Basic Needs. Link.
Martinez, Suzanna, et. al. (2017). Food insecurity in California's public university system. What are the risk factors? Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition. Link.
University of California, Los Angeles. (2018). About UCLA: Fast facts. Link.
Widome, Rachel, et. al. (2015). Food insecurity among veterans of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Public Health Nutrition. Link.
Photo 6: Scott Van Schoiack via Flickr
Photo 7: Newbold College via Flickr